This is a fantastic historical thriller and I am staggered that it is Schmidt's debut novel as her use of language and clever reimagining of such a haunting crime is nothing less than stunning.
Based on a true event from August 1892, Massachusetts, See What I Have Done is based on the story of Lizzie Borden, a thirty two year old woman who discovered the mutilated body of her father and then the body of her step mother who had been hacked to death.
"I wiped my hand across my mouth, tasted blood. My heart beat nightmares, gallop, gallop, as I looked at Father again, watched blood river down his neck and disappear into suit cloth. The clock on the mantlepiece ticked ticked."
It's a shocking opening. The language is rich yet economical, the dialogue disjointed yet flowing, the descriptions brief yet vivid and the images conjured up by Schmidt's precise detail are unforgettable.
"I cracked my heel into the floorboards, made the house moan then howl...........I heard my voice fold around doors and corners. The house; brittle bone under foot. Everything sounded louder than it should, hurt the ear."
I was unsure how to respond to Lizzie at the beginning which left me feeling unnerved and decidedly ill at ease as I watched the scene unfold before me. Her cool, detached way of explaining what has happened was disturbing. I was total fascinated by her character and by what was happening in this house.
"'Mrs Churchill, do come in. Someone's killed Father.'"
Very quickly it is clear that something in this house- and in this family -is not right; there is more hidden in the shadows and more to be revealed. Who is the main suspect? Lizzie? Her sister? Bridget the maid or the 'thug' Benjamin? Each of them appears to have a motive, a strangeness about them, a tendency not to be trusted or a side which hints at a violent nature. The narrative moves between them as events running up to the day are recounted and then events on the day told from their varying perspectives. What they saw, what they knew, what they thought all creating a complicated and gripping picture of a truly terrible crime.
This is an intense read. The weather is described so effectively that the reader feels beaten by the oppressive heat and is constantly made to feel physically uncomfortable from the descriptions of sweaty atmosphere. The setting too is intensely claustrophobic. The action is all held within the house - a house in which there are two brutally murdered bodies. We are constantly reminded of their presence and the gory circumstances of their bodies. Schmidt does not hold back with her descriptions which are even more vivid because of the blunt, stripped back way in which they are described. I loved her brutal style and found it captivating.
I thought the use of repetition was also effective in creating some further intensity and suspense. The clock that "ticked ticked" adds an authenticity to the scene and immediately triggers the reader's sense of sound to also exaggerate the deeply evocative setting of this story. There are also some images that are repeated and referred to several times which is also effective and claustrophobic. Schmidt uses all the senses to increase the tension, suspense and oppressive atmosphere. Her constant reference to blood also makes the crime inescapable.
The language is gripping and the dysfunctional relationships within the family are convincing. This book will definitely appeal to a contemporary audience because of its use of history. This is a murder that took place well over a hundred years ago and although Schmidt's writing coveys the sense of time and place effortlessly and realistically, it's appeal is the characters and what actually happened within those four walls.
Lizzie is a thrilling character. She is complex and deliberately ambiguous in a way which plays havoc with the reader! She is naive yet knowing and callous yet pitiful. She is character that everyone will remember. But I also liked Bridget the maid a lot. She sees perhaps the details others miss. She knows other sides to the characters and what lies under their beds or stuffed into their pockets.
The story is narrated by four characters and all in first person but there is never any confusion as to who we are listening too. This is real testament to Schmidt's skill. Each character remains distinctive and clear. It's a multilayered story that explores several characters but it is accessible and gripping.
Lizzie is arrested and tried for the crime but later released and no one was ever convicted for the murder of Andrew and Abby Borden. I think this real truth makes the story even more chilling.
I enjoyed this book. I was very impressed with the writing style. The narrative style is fresh, original, unsettling and often makes for uncomfortable reading - the prose won't be to everyone's taste but ultimately this is captivating and very clever. It is intense and it is a sensory overload but I recommend it. Haunting, chilling, gory and fascinating.
See What I Have Done is published by Tinder Press on 2nd May 2017.
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